It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most

One of my favorite NYTimes colomnists is David Brooks.  He recently wrote “It’s Not About You,” an op-ed piece about some of the contridictions today’s college graduates face.  This particular part stood out for me:

“The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.”

I find this to be so true.  I am judgemental toward those who are overweight, not working in some way (we stay-at-home goddesses are excluded, of course, because this is a ton of work), or really anyone who is not trying to better themselves in some way.  At my former job at an accounting firm, the partners, while attempting to be genuinely interested in their team, were of course most concerned with accurate work and diligence. 

Gretchen Rubin notes that being “the best” and being happy are often mutually exclusive.  So we truly are getting and giving mixed messages.  I have lately been taking some online courses in creativity… photography, writing, art.  One of the basic tenets of them is that there’s no wrong way to create and there’s no wrong result.  The actual process is the goal, and in that process, discovering some sense of yourself that you didn’t know was there.  In essence, the classes are to help with happiness, not excellence. 

Contrary to my student days and my time spent working at various jobs, I have realized that I don’t need to do something just because it’s there.  I’m happier letting somebody else plan the playgroups, if you will.  I’m definitely not being lazy and I’m not becoming any of those other qualities I said I dislike.  I’m just trying to be nicer to myself.

We may admire success and excellence, but it’s happiness that carries us forward.

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2 thoughts on “It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most

  1. Excellent point, Naomi!. When I was younger, I too was more focused on excelling than on “being happy.” There was no time to “be”; my attention was always focused on getting somewhere or achieving something with the assumption that happiness would greet me when I got there…except that there was never any stopping point. Now that I’m a mom, I finally see happiness as a goal in itself. I just heard a talk on NPR (can’t remember the name of the speaker) where a woman who had been an executive was taking art classes and found it incredibly stressful at first that there was no “right way” to create art. Her concern was “how can I excel if there’s no right way?” But in the end, she just started drawing and loved the process and her results. Thanks for sharing this post. It’s such an important point to remember!

    • Thanks for your comments, Donna. I never really saw it until I had my daughter either. In selecting a school for her first swim lessons, I looked past the place that is known for being skill-based (excellence) and chose instead the place that welcomed her to go at her own pace and just get used to being in the water (happiness). So much of what she is doing now is happiness and the learning takes care of itself. (Not that I don’t focus on that too!)

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